In a Situation

Posted in TV
By Mansoor Iqbal on 17 Aug 2010

Wouldn’t it be great if someone made a slice of life sitcom about comic book villains? Surely a lot of these guys, crazy space ones excepted, must just live pretty normal lives as they await their turn to have a go at Batman or Aquaman or whoever. With this in mind, I took great pleasure from imagining that Alfred Molina was reprising his role as Doc Ock when I was watching Roger and Val Have Just Got In (BBC2). On the surface, this seems a pretty serious project, and Molina’s a pretty heavyweight actor (Dawn French, who plays Val, is just heavy – a cheap shot I know, but I’ve started to feel a bit awkward just looking at her), so maybe I was doing the programme a slight disservice, but it was a little, well, tedious. I suppose in a programme set during the half hour after two boring people get home from work, dullness is the point – and, indeed, the scriptwriters are keen to show that Roger and Val are aware of this trait. The whole thing suggests a fondness for the poet laureate of the dull, Alan Bennett, particularly as many of the lines feel read rather than spoken – much like those old versions of Talking Heads they made you listen to at school. But the thing is Bennett’s work served as a kind of social commentary, with its focus on peripheral and slightly marginalised characters. The dullness spoke of loneliness, and a certain inescapability of circumstances. With these petit-bourgeois whingers, it’s hard to see anything beyond the dullness. The script fails in other departments too. The attempts to create an air of familiarity with little idiosyncrasies like their ‘big drawer’ and talking about things for too long fall a bit short, and leave it feeling both a bit wooden and nausea inducing at the same time. Who knows, maybe this is one the things that I’ll suddenly get after some time…but I have my doubts.

I feel like it’s impossible to escape BBC sitcoms at the moment. One only has to lurch unceremoniously down the road from Roger and Val’s gaff to find themselves at Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House (BBC2). This is another mostly real-time type thing, co-written as well as starred in by Amstell, in which a family mostly sit around in one room. Amstell pretty much plays himself: a TV presenter who wants to go on to do something more fulfilling (write a sitcom in which his family tell him he can’t act or write maybe? The self referential joke is worth a smile rather a laugh). Most of the jokes focus around his family, his mother’s new fiancé in particular, being awful. Amstell sticks in incredulous mode the whole time, doing that thing where he laughs nervously and machineguns a sentence between his teeth that serves as response but is more intended for the benefit of other listeners (you know the one!). The resulting drone of his voice makes this quite a grating watch to start with, but as the other characters become more bedded in, you realise it’s simply the plaintive cry of the classic sitcom straight man. And as soon as you can manage to tear your gaze from Amstell, Grandma’s House reveals itself to be pretty decent. Most of the humour is derived from an awkwardness generated by exaggerations of fairly well observed elements of family gatherings. Clive, the fiancé, is a particularly funny effort at Alan Partridge type character. All in all, despite not being the most sophisticated thing in the world, it’s pretty accomplished and certainly bodes well for Amstell’s career as a writer.

Next up on the sitcom treadmill, Inn Mates (BBC3), a pilot about, er, some mates in an inn. Neil Morrissey adds some gravitas (and dang if he don’t look good as a silver fox) but perhaps he did well to keep his appearances fleeting, as this is pretty rough. There’s quite a few characters, but the focus seems to be on five Two Packets of Lager-esque attractive(ish) twenty-somethings, and it seems like it’d play out as the same sort of moronic comedy-soap thing. I’m being a bit harsh really – at least there’s no canned laughter, and I do like to see a mixed race couple on TV – but there’s just no point. Leave it out.

Finally, Pete versus Life (C4). Again, this is about various twenty-somethings, but this time there’s a twist. Pete, a sports writer, is watched over by two sports commentators who analyse his blunderings. The gimmick works surprisingly well, although they perhaps lay it on a bit thick, and the two commentators, one of whom is played by that Geordie guy from Alan Partridge, put in stellar performances. You certainly wouldn’t bat an eyelid (or the aural equivalent) if these two ended up commentating on a football match. Pete is a hapless but selfish lead character. Of course, this leads to Peep Show style awkwardness, which is actually hard to watch sometimes. The characters are well written, and ring fairly true to life, albeit in an exaggerated fashion. Sadly though, the attempts to parody certain elements of London life were a bit less successful. It seemed like the writers were going by something they’d read about ‘hipsters’ in a magazine. This does’t detract from the set piece humour, but still, it’s rather trite. In conclusion Pete versus Life is undeniably good for a (beer) belly laugh; just don’t expect anything too clever eh?

Oh bloody hell, one more thing. Vexed (what’s wrong with you BBC2!?) was also a thing that happened. Stay away from this Frankenstein’s monster made solely from horrible clichés. It’s for your own good.

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